By Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar Straus Giroux: New York) $25/hardcover
Marilynne Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, published over 20 years ago, has garnered both a literary and a cult following. The story of two sisters whose lives are unraveling as the house around them is physically crumbling and filling with water, Housekeeping is quiet and mysterious, spare and haunting.
Twenty years later, Robinson's long-awaited second novel, Gilead, is already reaping reviews certain to place it alongside Housekeeping among the must-reads of contemporary American literature.
Gilead is an extended letter (247 pages) from aging and soon-to-die John Ames to his young son. It is 1956 in small-town Iowa where the Rev. Ames has pastored the same church for most of the century. As he reflects on a life of solitude, faith, doubt and small-town values, Ames struggles with jealousy and uncertainty over John Ames Boughton, his namesake and the son of his best friend. Amus believes Boughton is overly interested in his young wife and son.
Long passages on theological questions, drawn from the Rev. Ames' old sermons, mingle with lyrical reflections on the landscape and the people that have made up his life, including his formidable grandfather and his pacifist father. Ames' quiet joy for living animates the book as does his passion for the life he almost missed, the life of a husband and father.
The triumph of Gilead lies in Robinson's ability to become the narrator and to channel Ames' gentle voice from beginning to end, offering the reader a quiet respite as well as an emotional and intellectual challenge.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The Problem With Murmur Lee
By Connie May Fowler
(Doubleday: New York) $21.95/hardcover
Connie May Fowler's novels Sugar Cage and Before Women Had Wings have earned the author raves for her ability to capture the voices of real-world characters caught up in difficult circumstances. In The Problem With Murmur Lee, Fowler cuts loose with her gift for characterization, offering a quirky group of lifelong friends inhabiting a wisp of land in north Florida, on the Atlantic coast -- Fowler's real-life stomping ground.
At the group's center is Murmur Lee Harp, a free spirit who has recently fallen overboard into the Iris Haven River and drowned. While Murmur's spirit hovers over her home place, her friends try to solve the mystery of her death while purging their grief over her absence from their lives.
Among the survivors are Murmur's best friend Charlee Mudd, returned from up North to claim her inheritance; Edith Piaf, a 60-something former marine whose late-life sex change experience was shepherded by Murmur; and Dr. Zachary Klein, a despairing physician who has now lost the only two women he has ever loved.
By turns hilarious, raucous, dark and sweet, The Problem With Murmur Lee spreads affection like jam on warm toast. Fowler's affirmative gift to her readers is reflected in Murmur Lee's final words: "I loved this life."
-- Kathryn Eastburn